Almost 160 years after the end of the Civil War and abolition of slavery, the United States is still reckoning with the reprehensible practice and the enshrinement of racism in American society. So if Black filmmakers like Antoine Fuqua and stars like Will Smith still feel like there’s something to say about slavery, it’s best not to dismiss them out of hand.
However, in their new Apple TV+ movie Emancipation, they fail to prove the necessity of this particular story. Smith plays Peter, a man who – along with his wife, Dodienne (Charmaine Bingwa), and his children – is enslaved on a Louisiana plantation. Peter is loaned out to the Confederate Army to help build a railroad that will let the army move across the landscape quicker.
Soon after his arrival, though, he overhears that Lincoln has issued the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing all slaves as of January 1, 1863. Emboldened by this discovery and knowledge that the Union Army is in nearby Baton Rouge, Peter and other men try to escape at their first best opportunity, with hunter Jim Fassel (Ben Foster) hot on their heels.
Written by Bill Collage and said to be based on a true story, the majority of the film plays out in the same unfortunate way that Harriet did a few years ago, as a misguided adventure story. While the danger to Peter and his fellow escapees is certainly real, their plight feels cheapened by the film’s focus on the pursuit by one seemingly omniscient villain.
A big part of what keeps Peter going through all the obstacles he faces is his desire to get back to his family, an idea that’s universal in theory, but never really takes hold in practice. We barely get to meet his family at the beginning of the film, and even a couple of check-ins throughout the film fail to up the emotional stakes. The filmmakers try to manufacture some drama with his wife, but since she’s not a full character, the idea fizzles.
Near the end of the film, much is made about a famous photo taken of Smith’s character, something that is supposed to be the final exclamation point on the film’s message. However, as presented, it comes out of nowhere and feels tacked on instead of important, one final miscalculation in a film full of them.
Smith, who affects an accent of the unnamed African nation from which Peter came, does his level best in the role, but it doesn’t fit him like a glove. Perhaps he’s now too famous to take on a part like this, or maybe the fallout from his Oscars controversy is still too fresh, but his performance doesn’t feel award-worthy. Foster has the face and demeanor to play a villain like this, and so even if the part is one-note, he fills it well.
There may still be interesting and new ways in which to talk about the era of slavery in America, but Emancipation is not the film to make such a case. Smith may be able to get back in the good graces of film fans, but he’ll need a better vehicle than this film.
Emancipation is now streaming on Apple TV+.